$2M donation benefits The Wilds

Visitors experiencing the Wilds next year will see some changes after J.W. “Bill” Straker, 95, of Zanesville, and his M.H. Straker Charitable Foundation made a  donation of $2 million — the largest the Wilds has received — to build more housing so the Mighty Oaks Warrior Program can expand to Ohio.

“He saw an article in Forbes magazine that described the Mighty Oaks (Warrior Program),” said Susan Holdren, 64, of Zanesville, Straker’s daughter and spokesperson for the family. “It was a short article and mentioned the particular group was doing a lot for veterans.”

The donation will go toward building seven cabins, each with two or three bedrooms, a kitchenette, small living room and a bathroom. It will also include a lodge containing a classroom/multi-purpose room, a commercial kitchen, laundry and restrooms.

If there is money leftover from the project, those funds will go toward scholarships to bring disadvantaged children in Muskingum County to the Wilds.

Upon investigation, Holdren said her father found the program was a nonprofit organization that was designed to help those veterans or active-duty service members who suffer from life-threatening psychological wounds.

“He found around 22 veterans a day commit suicide and the Mighty Oaks (Warrior) Program has a good record of success,” explained Holdren. “They haven’t had anybody (commit suicide) who has gone through the program and they’ve had over 1,200 graduates.”

The program works in remote locations for a week-long session where their students are treated for their psychological needs. Jeremy Stalnecker, executive director of the Mighty Oaks Warrior Foundation, said they are looking forward to adding Ohio to their frequented locations.

“Having a program in Ohio gives us the ability to bring folks from all over the west to a different location,” he explained. “Regionally, we can bring folks from that area to a program in their area instead of bringing them out to California.”

He said their main locations for the program are California, Texas, Virginia and now Ohio.

“So one of the things for us is aftercare,” he said. “Once someone leaves our program, they need to be connected to someone to help them to work them through their issues; sending someone from the California location back to Ohio isn’t always super helpful.”

Stalnecker said he was able to visit the Wilds location and felt it will be a perfect fit for their program and what they aim to do.

“We are pretty excited about it; everything about it makes it a great location from where it’s located and how it’s easy to get to and from anywhere to having recreational activities right there,” he said. “Being isolated to be able to focus on what we need to focus on makes it a pretty ideal location for us.”

Additionally, the Wilds will be able to gain more revenue from the additional lodges and cabins helping not only veterans but their program as well.

“The gift will serve two purposes: provide a retreat for veterans grappling with post-combat stress and make the Wilds more accessible to traveling families and small groups,” explained Patty Peters, vice president of community relations for the Wilds. “The cabin complex will also provide another revenue stream for the Wilds’ conservation and education efforts.”

The Wilds is a private, nonprofit conservation center that opened in 1994 on 10,000 acres of reclaimed land where people can come and have an educational, personal experience with a variety of wild animals.

“More than 100,000 people, mostly from outside of the area surrounding the Wilds, visit the Wilds each year,” said  Peters. “It is our hope to inspire them to connect with wildlife and the world around them that will lead to conservation action.”

Holdren said this is their second donation to the Wilds — the first being when they established the first veterinary clinic at the conservation center — and noted the Wilds is important to them as is the mission of the Mighty Oaks Warrior Foundation.

“I think we see the Wilds as the gem of Muskingum County,” said Holdren. “It’s not unique, there are other conservation parks like it, but we feel so fortunate that it’s in our county and we want to do everything we can to help and promote it.”